How we did it: looking at the data behind academic zero hour contracts

Research by the University and College Union (UCU) revealed that more than half of British 145 universities have staff on zero hour contracts: a controversial arrangement that doesn’t guarantee pay or continuous work hours.

According to figures from FOI requests, academic institutions are twice as likely to employ staff on these terms, which might affect lecturers’ ability to help students with their studies.

Seventy-one universities responded to the Freedom of Information requests sent by UCU, revealing that:

  • 21,371 teaching staff,
  • 901 researchers, and
  • 2,155 academic-related staff

work for academic institutions without certainty of monthly pay. This amounts to a total of 24,427 nationally.

In analysing the data Help Me Investigate Education (HMIE) found some discrepancies in the data provided which were highlighted in UCU’s notes about the report:

“In some institutions, the number of zero-hour contracts is actually higher than the number of academic staff returned to HESA so the following data should be treated with some caution.”

However, reliable information led UCU to conclude that “those teaching on zero-hour contracts constitute 46.7% of all teaching only staff” and that “those teaching on zero-hour contracts constitute 15.3% of all teaching staff (HESA figures for both teaching only and teaching and research staff)”.

Diverging numbers found by HMIE included those of the University of Warwick. The UCU’s report said that 30 people were under this type of contract, but when contacted for clarification the university’s press officer Peter Dunn claimed there were only eight academic staff who now worked under these conditions:

“Firstly the FOI request was somewhat oddly worded so what we responded with  included people that were not actually on “zero hours”  contracts. Also, since that FOI request people have left and or changed roles and contracts so the number currently is in fact eight.”

Although some of the figures are disputed, there are many that are accurate and somewhat surprising. Following enquiries from HMIE, the University of Wolverhampton‘s staffing figures revealed that the institution had over half of academic staff on zero hour contracts: 773 in total.

For this reason HMIE looked closely at UCU’s methodology

The methods used intended to “narrow the questions to zero-hour contracts only”

“There is no single definition of a zero-hour contracts and we therefore asked for data on the use of contracts under which the employer has no obligation to offer work and guarantees no minimum hours of work.

“We asked about teaching and research staff – and in the older (pre-92 institutions) we also asked about academic related staff i.e. all staff in senior roles who are not directly engaged in the provision of teaching and / or research such as administrative, computing, library and other university services staff.”

One of the most interesting pieces of data might indicate how these working conditions affect zero hour lecturers directly.

“We asked those using zero-hour contracts how many staff currently had no work allocated:

“- 8 HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] indicated that at the current time all their zero-hour teaching staff were without work;

“- 10 HEIS indicated that none of their zero-hour teaching staff were without work and

“- 24 HEIs indicated that between 12.2 and 98.2% of their zero-hour teaching staff were without work.”

As most universities did not respond to the question above, it is difficult to say how many staff are affected in this way – but this is certainly a reliable sample of how zero hour contracts can affect a lecturer’s right to work and earn money, their ability to organise things like childcare or obtain mortgages.

Writing it up, living and learning

Though I worked hard to write an article for the Birmingham Mail on this subject, making it more relevant to the Midlands area, being a reporter is always a job open to mistakes or misunderstandings.

I was cautioned by freelance journalist Philip Roddis that a part of my blog post could mislead readers to think University of Warwick spokesman Peter Dunn was speaking for the whole of the HE sector as opposed to just the university he represents.

He writes:

“Even thirty ZHCs would make Warwick a low user, in contrast to those HEIs that issue hundreds and thousands as a long-term strategy to bypass employment law. So why would Peter Dunn, Head of Commun­ic­ations at Warwick, say ZHCs don’t harm students? Were Warwick a major user I’d suspect a damage limitation job – heavy on rhetoric, light on facts – but it isn’t and this didn’t make sense. I emailed Mr Dunn to ask for evidence of his assertion, careful to leave room for the possibility he’d been misquoted.”

I can understand how readers might assume Mr Dunn was speaking for all HE institutions, however I did write the article in good faith and would not have used his quote if I did not believe it was implied that he was speaking about his own institution. As human beings all think differently I realized my mistake and have since amended the blog post.

Founder of this website Paul Bradshaw also weighed in:

“I’m sure Nicole didn’t intend that, as reading it with a knowledge of the story you can still assume he is talking about Warwick students whose tutors are on ZHC, rather than a broader body of students (and indeed the original question isn’t specific either, so it’s not clear who he understands as the students in question).”

And what I learned from this is that I should never assume anything is implied, but make is as clear as possible for the reader – and in your questions. After all I have the responsibility to inform.

As Philip concluded:

“I guess this all goes to show how writers in the public domain must be careful about our word choice. Ms Froio would have done better to say:

” … Peter Dunn insisted that the very low use of zero hours contracts at Warwick means that they do not get in the way of students’ education there …”

There is a valuable lesson there in making my language – and Help Me Investigate Education – as accurate as possible.

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